My father began telling me to fuck off when I was nineteen years old. It was a hot summer day and I lived at home, taking classes at the local community college to get ahead and graduate as soon as possible. I was a tall and slim woman with fearful brown eyes who planned on moving north to escape the confines of the palpable disgust from my father.
I will never forget the moment my father hurled the first f-bomb at my face. We stood in our tiny hallway of our small nondescript apartment. I saw the cinder block bookcases piled against the white walls of the living room and my father’s record player atop a nightstand as he pronounced the obscenity over me, a benediction in reverse. He stood inches from me, his face filled with hatred as the words flew from his mouth, spittle hanging from his lips.
My body stopped breathing at that moment and I froze. I did not know what to do. I had no idea, no template for this sort of experience, and I just stood there. He said it again, the awful curse word, and walked out and left the house.
Walked out and left.
Walked out and left.
Walked out and left.
The pattern that repeated itself, defining much of my childhood and adolescence, was that my father, my primary caregiver, walked out and left me more times than I care to recall.
I don’t remember what happened after he left the apartment. I probably called someone. I may have called my therapist. I may have prayed for answers, but I felt God’s absence as acutely as I felt the blight of my father’s wrath spreading, sickening my soul, awakening the death instinct. If my own flesh and blood rejected me, then what was I worth? The lies sprouted inside of me, and I began thinking it would be better if I were not around anymore.
People talk disparagingly of the homeless, the poor, and the mentally ill in our midst. Many leaders criticize these individuals harshly, telling them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Leaders admonish the marginalized to try harder, get better, and think positively; as if a person is solely an individual and not part of a complex web of family, friends, religious groups, and more; as if we are not utterly needy and dependent creatures upon each other and the God of the universe for sustenance.
Recovering from decades of abuse from our parents is not, as some would claim, a simple matter of changing one’s mind.
Once death has been planted in your soul, it becomes an all-consuming weed filling the garden of your heart. It takes more than thinking positively to root out the lies of self-destruction. Healing requires a spiritual awakening to undo the damage that has been wrought.
Last night, I drove home after a time with friends, and at a stop light, I paused and saw a homeless man carrying his small beige puppy in a baby stroller. He had his life packed in a large military green backpack and pushed his animal through the hot city streets on a July night. I prayed for him, knowing that pain and trauma exists in that man just as surely as it has existed in me, in all of us, if we get right down to it.
When I looked at that man, I wondered about his suffering and how much of our stories would share commonalities. Would we connect in the strange lands of abuse, endurance, and hope for a better life? Did someone important in his life tell him he was a waste of space when he was younger? Did a person who was supposed to love and care for him start telling him to fuck off, that it would have been better had he never been born, like I began hearing at age nineteen?
Healing happens in fits and starts, and I know that once I began my walk with Christ after that painful summer, I did not have a magical ending. Waking up the day after I gave my life to Christ I was a new woman, but I still had weeds of death within me. I was still tempted with the notion that my life would be better off gone.
“I wish you had never been born,” my father began saying when I returned home the following summer. The litany of death continued, the declaration lodging itself in my soul as surely as the words we sing newborn babies settle over their hearts like a soft blanket. I knew it was rage and untreated mental illness. I knew it was wrong, and yet I believed it for so long. I trusted no one but him, and now Christ, but I could not tell the difference between either because the God I prayed to reminded me a lot of the man I lived with.
When we go to church, the mentally ill are often exempt from the gospel, unofficially deemed as unfit for the company of Christ. Why is that? Some say mental illness comes down to chemical imbalances and bad habits, patterns of relieving the past and becoming one with your story of suffering. On the one hand, living with diabetes is a bona fide physical illness, one that can be treated with a physician’s care. Yet often the mentally ill are accused of causing their own suffering, which is often viewed as a spiritual or moral failing.
God came down in the form of a man who essentially blew up the notion of change, inclusivity, and hospitality. This is one of the reasons I worship Jesus. We are all included and welcomed in the good news of Christ, the gospel made accessible by the work of Saint Paul converting not only the Jews but also the Gentiles, traveling all over the Middle East and eventually martyred for his efforts.
Humanity still resists and judges those who are most vulnerable and sometimes our greatest enemies are those living in our own household and within our own skin. For decades, I imbibed my father’s lies, making friends with the demons of despair and cultivating their growth. I swallowed the lies and lived them as truth, pushing away beloved friends with such hostility and force it surprised me.
Along the way, I opened to the possibility that things could change—that I could change. I recited the serenity prayer and prayed for my father, asking the Holy Spirit to help me forgive him because he was a hurting soul. His tender heart was destroyed by my grandfather’s beatings and his own terrible battle with alcoholism. Surely my father, in spite of his atrocious behavior toward me, was still a beloved child of God, just like we hear about in Christianity. God loved him just as much as he loved me, but I could not see that for so long. Without forgiveness, moving onward would be impossible.
Two years ago, on my thirty-ninth birthday, I had a strange and vivid dream. In it I walked along an open field surrounded by wildflowers with bright sunshine all around me. A cornflower blue sky shone above, and I heard a calm, warm, and infinitely loving voice speak to me. The voice beckoned, “Stop making love to your story of woe, cultivating more pain and self-loathing. You hold your despair too close. It’s time to let go.” When I woke up I felt God guiding me to surrender that toxic storyline. And with his help, I did. The peace that washed over me was all-encompassing. I basked in God’s love, allowing it to soothe and nourish me.
On that fine summer day, I woke up radiant with peace. Even my coworkers noted the change, and I saw the world with a deeper spiritual vision than before. You might say the scales had fallen from my eyes and, for a time, I sensed the grandeur and majesty of God directing me, all of us, in a beautiful dance of belonging.
What if I could let go of the old lies and begin again? What would my life look like if I chose to practice truth instead of darkness?
The truth of transformation is multifaceted and layered in complexity, like fossils at a seashore. I have never arrived, but I have forgiven both myself and my father, perhaps the single greatest miracle of all. The older I become, the more I understand we keep company with our demons as much as with our angels. In the timeless dream, I experienced the direct presence of God, though the feelings diminished a few months later as life returned with its joys and sorrows.
But I never forgot the dream. I keenly felt light radiating on my skin and the warmth of the voice whose love broke through to say my soul matters and deserves exquisite care, that forgiveness of myself and my father would open the doorway to compassion and peace.
The habits of sorrow I received from my father and those which I cultivated are still here, well-worn paths of cognition that change slowly with steady intention. These demons keep me on my knees and connect me to God. Transformation occurs in this body and like a caterpillar in a cocoon, my body grows in the dark, wings extending at their own pace. Nothing is rushed. With God’s grace, the old lies are being scoured from my soul. I miss them and mourn their passing like old friends—I loved them for so long. But God’s loving touch is close at hand, beckoning me toward verdant paths of peace.
Cover image by Thought Catalog.